“Justice Could Have Called but Mercy Came”

 

82A65550-B655-4B99-9635-7EE6D11BC6A2I am a church woman, and I was a church girl — religious to the core. I have been in churches, and served on the staff of churches, large and small — Greek Orthodox churches, Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Baptist. Mostly Baptist. A 50-year Baptist and an ordained Baptist minister for 26 of those years.

I enjoy so many fond memories of my time in all of those faith traditions. Some poignant times, some hard times, some joy-filled times, some hilarious times — all made my journey a very rich one. So I will share with you just one funny story. I once was a part of a women’s choral ensemble in one of our Baptist churches. We sang lovely hymn arrangements, some contemporary pieces, and a few high-brow anthems. But at rehearsal one night, our director pulled out a piece of music that was rather mind-blowing. We looked at the lyrics and began to giggle. Soon we were laughing uncontrollably as we saw the opening line of the song’s refrain: “Justice could have called but mercy came instead.”*

Turns out, this was a bonafide gospel song, a quartet song, and we thought ourselves much too musically sophisticated to sing a gospel quartet song. But this is the interesting thing about those song lyrics that seemed to us so funny. In applying my theological and doctrinal knowledge to those lyrics, I determined that the sentence is true. It is very true that God can confront our sins and flaws with justice, but instead covers them with mercy. How full of grace is that truth! How many times have we needed God’s touch of mercy and grace! How many times has my sinfulness convinced me that mercy is out of my reach, that grace is impossible for me!

Pope Francis clearly understands sin in this way. Shortly after he proclaimed the Holy Year of Mercy in 2015, he was asked why humanity is so in need of mercy. He replied, “considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.” 

When all is said and done, the words of that gospel song are true. Indeed, “justice could have called, but mercy came instead.” It is my hope and prayer that all of us will find redemptive mercy in the God of grace who offers us love, patience and forgiveness.

 

* Written by R.R. Christian as listed in the Catalog of Published Music

Friends

0373B40D-24BE-4EAE-8E78-3357B8EC97C7

Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley

There is nothing as enriching to life as genuine friendship. Not the superficial kind of friendship that boasts hundreds of “friends” on social media. Not the fickle kind of friendship described as a “fair weather” friendship. Not the exploitive kind of friendship that befriends someone only if there is something to gain by it. 

I’m actually talking about a specific friendship with a friend that is dearly special to me. But I am also talking about friendship in general. The kind of friendship I’m talking about is tried and true friendship that stands up to the test of time. It’s friendship that remains even though miles separate friend from friend. It’s friendship that cares through the years and deepens as time passes. It’s friendship that gives of your best to another person without thought of getting something in return. It’s friendship that is sweeter because you have allowed another person to know the real “you.”

Through the years, I recall many friendships that occurred in threes — three friends that were virtually inseparable so that when you saw one, the other two were close by. Of course, the friendship of three fluctuated with opportunity, going to different schools, living in different neighborhoods, and even those little spats that occurred every once in a while. Within those three, there were always the constant two — the twins, so to speak. For a time, I had this kind of friend.

So what did we do to build such friendships? That’s easy. We talked about boys and first loves, rivals for the boys we liked, as in girls that we didn’t like. We talked about going on dates, who was the cutest boy, and which boy liked which girl. We discussed the ways we might let a certain boy know that one of us liked him. We planned attendance at the next dance and how we could finagle to sit by a particular boy in church. We talked about going to Panama City to find a new crop of boys at the famous Hangout. We talked about clothes and shoes, especially shorts, and how we would sneak the shortest shorts by our ever-watchful parents. And of course, we planned times of spending the night together — eating, laughing, sitting in the dark around the lighted Christmas tree, listening to Otis Redding’s  “Try a Little Tenderness” and talking about boys all night long.

Sounds rather superficial, right? Maybe. But the truth is, in those relationships we learned how to share ourselves. Those giggly teenagers, who shared every intimate secret with one another while acting completely and unabashedly silly, grew up to be good and wise and strong women who still needed friends with whom to share their most intimate secrets. And guess what? We do. We still do. Across the miles, we interact with one another as if we have always been together. We share a love that is sweet and comforting.

Deep in myinnermost spirit, I know I can still count on the friend I made as a teenager. Apparently, ours was a bond that could not break. So thanks, Suzanne. I love you, then and now.

“Let America Be America Again”

FA175E90-7908-4E1C-8B8C-76AE402ACC80On this day — the day we usually spend celebrating America each year — some of us are lamenting because we don’t feel much like celebrating. The children and families separated at our borders leave us feeling deep-down-where-it-hurts grief. And it is not that we look at the border fiasco as the crisis “du jour.” No. The toddlers in detention centers have come on the heels of the Parkland shooting and the protests it sparked around the nation and throughout the world when all of us cried out in unified voice, “Not our children,”

Again and again, we have witnessed tragedies inflicted on the children. We have  wept over them and have seen the horror that left our children unprotected and in harm’s way. There are, of course, other issues before us that cause grave concern, but it’s the children that leave us speechless and breathless. If we are a free and just nation at all, then we simply cannot abide the thought of children being in danger.

So what do I do today? What do I celebrate? Do I display the American flag in my front yard? What do I say about today? 

I have determined to say nothing further, but instead to offer the poignant poem written in 1935 by American poet Langston Hughes.

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today — O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me? 

The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does that not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Fighting with Demons, Wrestling with Angels

F01A76CE-6B4A-450D-B178-93665F765C71I am digging deep to find strength for the living of these days. Certainly, I am dealing with health issues and aging, enough to wrap a comforting cloak of depression around my self. I am deeply concerned about a dear family member who is working through sorrow. I am sad that people come to the abyss of life feeling that the only answer for them is to take their own lives.

My faith is filled with questions . . . How does faith really work? How can I place myself in God’s comforting presence? How do I pray, for myself, for my family and friends, for this nation, for the world? And most of all my question is simply “Why?”

I hear news reports that cause me sadness. I see photos of parentless immigrant children that break my heart. I hear the voices of individuals who still demean women. I watch senior adults in our nation trying to live without adequate healthcare. I share the shame of homeless veterans who placed their lives in harm’s way for this country. I hear the ringing of gunshots echoing from past school shootings, a sound in my spirit that I cannot silence.

I listen to the voices of young school children who say they are afraid to go to school, and Imsee their anxious parents who just want to hold their children close, far away from danger. And I hear the loud, clear and confident voices of teenagers marching to Washington to demand change. That is the best sound of all, one that should give us all hope.

And then there are the things I don’t see or hear — like the voices of congressional leaders that prefer comfortable complacency over uncomfortable confrontation. Where are their voices of reason? Where is their collective wisdom that could well ease some of our nation’s unease?

That’s it. I’m a bit down about it all. And the honest truth is this: my religious rituals don’t really help. My faith, held for so many years and through so much turbulence, is faltering. My prayers seem to float into the unknown, unheard and unanswered. My laments are in vain. I fight with the demons that tell me my faith will not hold and I wrestle with the angels that whisper, “There is yet a quiet hope that does hold you in holy, gentle hands.”

That’s what I bank on.

Often, I am comforted and inspired by the writing of Bishop Steven Charleston. In this brief writing, he eloquently expresses the difficultly in finding a way to faith.

I am a thinking being not a religious robot, 

And I often find my way to faith,

Finding the holy in questions,

Seeking the sacred in lament;

Wrestling with angels before the dawn finds me . . .

— Bishop Steven Charleston

If we are honest, we will admit that we find the holy in our questioning and we stumble upon the sacred in our laments. Perhaps that is faith’s true path, not the easy path we expected. In the end of all things that bring despondency, we still find our way to faith. We find the holy again and again. We find the sacred over and over even through our laments. 

Faith begins to live in us while we are drowning in sorrow. No, we do not get to the very center of our faith by acting as religious robots. We get there when we stand courageously against our demons and wrestle with the angels that have the power to lift us from the depths.

Robert F. Kennedy: A Tribute

3DBDB3DF-6217-4BB9-8558-F5C4BF3F3CC3It was called the greatest speech ever written — April 4, 1968.

A predominantly black crowd gathered in the streets of Indianapolis. They had had not yet heard the devastating news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was Robert F. Kennedy who brought them the pain-filled news in a brief announcement. And then he shared the unending pain he felt, but seldom mentioned publicly, of his brother’s death in Dallas. He pleaded with the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.” 

They did go home, and Indianapolis was one of the few American cities that did not burn that night. 

When we contemplate today’s headlines, some of us can hear Robert Kennedy’s voice and imagine him speaking out in our country — on the madness of gun violence, on the shame of police brutality, on the need for compassion in welcoming immigrants and refugees, on the moral necessity to seek peace instead of war, and on the divisiveness of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and all other challenges to our quest for unity. His way of communicating with others — personally or in crowds of people — was calming and inspiring.

When he spoke, he often called for peace and unity:

Surely we can learn, at least, to bind up the wounds among us and become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

— Robert F. Kennedy

Clearly, Robert F. Kennedy was loved by the everyday people of this nation — the factory and farm workers, the coal miners and the steel workers, the teachers and the doctors, the people who lived in the most modest neighborhoods as well as the people in the mansions on the hilltops. Why such an appeal? It could well be because his life and leadership were forged in the civil rights battles he faced as attorney general and in his own harrowing introspection after his brother’s assassination on November 22, 1963. 

Less than five years after losing his brother, “as he lay shot and bleeding on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he looked up and asked: “Is everybody OK?”

— Robert Morris Shrum, Director and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, UNiversity of Southern California

The books and films on Robert F. Kennedy’s life are so compelling that even persons who were not yet born then can grasp why millions flocked to rail sides as his funeral train traveled ever so slowly from New York to Washington, DC. In the midst of a nation’s despondency at losing the third great American leader, the train carrying his body was a kind of defiant last rally, a tribute not only to who he had been, but to what might have been. His daughter described that day.

A train carried his body from New York City to the nation’s capital. Crowds lined the train tracks, and waved, and cried. That train ride was supposed to be three hours, and instead it turned out to be almost seven hours. Two million people came out.  African Americans in Baltimore singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Nobody organized this; it was spontaneous.

— Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

As always, we have the opportunity to grow and learn on the other side of tragic loss. We would do well to listen carefully to the plea spoken so many years ago by Robert F. Kennedy to the people grieving the death of Dr. King.

Say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.

Let’s do that, right in the face of today’s angst over so many ills and wrongs. Let’s “say a prayer . . . to make gentle the life of the world.”

Amen

 

WomanSpirit Tree of Life: Watercolor Art

I have always loved Tree of Life images. They remind us of our rootedness, our connectedness, our potential for flourishing growth. This Tree of Life watercolor features a woman as the giver of life. She is strong and steady, with arms ourstretched, and she stands as the symbol of a foundation at the center of life.

On her chest is an amulet called the “Mati” or the evil eye. The evil eye amulet originated in Greece where it was known as an “apotropaic” amulet, meaning that it reflected harm and thus protected the wearer.

The most powerful symbol in the painting is the WomanSpirit, a symbol of wisdom, strength and life-giving power.

To order an 8″ by 10″ print of this and other watercolor pieces, visit the link below. You will see a variety of watercolors such as:

Enchanted Forest

Holy Ghosts

Ugandan Washday at the River

Circle of Friends

Well-Behaved Women

Circle of Women

Dance!

The Hummingbird

East African Sunset

Bird in Stillness

Gentle Forest

Plains of Africa

Ugandan Crested Cranes

Masai Mara

Branches

Whimsy

Flight

The Gentle Forest

https://kalliopeswatercolors.wordpress.com/2016/03/25/watercolor-prints/

The Very Real, Bona Fide Gnat Line

2F5D03EA-A564-4F67-B04E-E43DC632DAD0NEVER! You hear me? NEVER . . . Never would I have moved to Macon, Georgia four years ago if someone had bothered to tell me the place sits smack dab on top of the Gnat Line! I had a perfectly good home in Little Rock, Arkansas, a lovely home that I enjoyed for 35 years. And I had a beautiful patio garden with many plants, trees, flowers and shrubs. And NO gnats!

You think I’m exaggerating. Or maybe spinning a tale for a few laughs.

No!. I’m dead serious about the Gnat Line! This is a genuine map that shows it with a red line of dashes.

457C3485-CDAA-464D-8AF8-1ECD27E37F70I, for one, do not need a map to tell me that the infamous Gnat Line goes directly through Macon, Georgia. The line probably goes through my street! I have empirical evidence. Gnats go after me with a vengeance, lighting all over my arms, relentlessly buzzing my ears, and worse, dive-bombing into my eyes, nose and, if I don’t keep it tightly closed, my mouth. It is not a good experience.

I have applied to my skin and clothing Off, Skin-So-Soft, Deep Woods Off, Sawyer, Cutter, Repel, No-Gnatz, Natrapel, stuff with DEET, stuff without DEET, picaridin, permethrin, and a variety of highly touted plant oils.

To no avail! The Gnats are not deterred. So I designed a stylish gnat hat, thoroughly ridiculous looking, but effective. The problem is the neighbors, the sweet neighbors who try so hard not to gossip about anyone in the neighborhood. But how can they help themselves when a crazy lady with a very strange hat is working in her flower beds, still swatting gnats off both arms. The gnat hat is definitely not my finest fashion statement.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so in lieu of giving you an even wordier description, here is a photo of my gnat hat:11DA5962-66B9-4272-94E8-CAB35D42986F

If you are still skeptical about the location of the bone fide Gnat Line, let me tell you. Those of us who have spent time outdoors in Georgia know precisely where the Gnat Line is exactly 1-6 inches directly IN FRONT OF OUR FACE and probably in our nose!

But to be fair to Georgia . . . Head to the beautiful North Georgia mountains and you will not find a single gnat. And for, now, we’re safe. They’re not here quite yet.

May they get lost on their evil migration and head further north, completely out of our state. That’s my sincere hope regarding gnats!

Through the Fire

892264FE-E803-4E0E-B598-C7503D77F674Sometimes life hurts.
We suffer. We heal. We move on.
But sometimes life hits back. Harder.
Lethal in its cruelty.
Shattering us into a million glittering shards
of pain and loss and anguish.
And we suffer, too broken to heal,
to become what we once were.
— L.R Knost

How deeply I know that feeling of brokenness. I am personally acquainted — well acquainted — with the lethal cruelty that life can present. To heal the past requires that I pay close attention to the spiritual and emotional places within me in the present, to make sure I am healthy and whole right now. Only then will I find the strength to invite the pain of the past into my psyche so that I can face off against it.

I have learned through the years that it is not a good option to leave past pain where it is, to let it occupy the place within me it has claimed. This writing by L.R Knost is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen on healing from past pain.

Healing is not a straight and narrow road
that leads from darkness to light.
There’s no sudden epiphany to take
us from despair to serenity, no orchestrated
steps to move us from hurting to healed.
Healing is a winding mountain road with steep
climbs and sudden descents, breathtaking views
and breath-stealing drop-offs, dark tunnels
and blinding exposures, dead ends and
endless backtracks, rest stops and break downs,
sheer rock walls and panoramic vistas.
Healing is a journey with no destination,
because healing is the journey of every lifetime.

Indeed, “healing is the journey of every lifetime.” The reality is that the only way to heal from the pain of the past is to walk directly through the center of that pain in the present. Does it feel safer to just let the pain continue to smolder in the dark parts of myself? Of course it feels safer. It feels terrifying, in fact, downright terrifying.

But the dark places in me will never heal spontaneously. I have to conquer the fear and open up to the possibility that God’s Spirit can breathe life back into those embers of pain snd rekindle the fires of unhealed hurts. So as I sit cautiously at the very edge of the fires of past pain, I cannot help but recall the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

— Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

And so many times, I have found deep comfort in singing the beloved hymn, How Firm a Foundation.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
 My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
 The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
 Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.*

Text: Attr. to Robert Keen, ca. 1787.
Music: Attr. to J. Ellis, ca. 1889

So the flames aren’t there to burn me. The flames are there to light my way through pain to healing. At times, I have approached those flames with courage and confidence. But at other times, I met the flames with terror.

Courage or terror — it didn’t matter really. I just walked through it just as I was, and as I did, the hurt transformed into hope. I had wounds, for sure, and lasting scars. But the scars tell a story of the battles I won and the battles I lost, and most importantly, the scars tell the story of a human who survived. So, in spite of fiery places of past pain, we learn to live as L.R. Knost says

. . . with the shards of pain and loss and anguish forever embedded in our souls,

and with shaking fingers we piece together the bloody fragments of who we were into a mosaic grotesque in its stark reality,

yet exquisite in its sharp-edged story of the tragic, breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

And we move on, often unaware of the light glittering behind us
showing others the way through the darkness.

This is a resilience we can be thankful for, a perseverance we can cherish, a strength straight from a present and faithful God that will ever — forever — sustain us. Amen.

 

* Hear the entire hymn, How Firm a Foundation, at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G0S62se1hAE

Faith and Illness: A Solid Rock in Desert Days

 

4EB74B81-616C-4A67-A002-B1F4AAF1EE47This piece was first published on the blog at revgalblogpals.org. Thanks to that wonderful group for publishing this article and for all their thoughtful and informative publications.

 

As I reflect on faith and illness, I recall the words of an old hymn, “My anchor holds and grips the solid rock.” Remembering the hymn’s message gives me hope in myself and in my faith. Still, these are empty days for me, and I ask myself these questions:

What is it about faith that raises me up when I have fallen face-first into the dirt?

What is it that gives me the strength to get up, dust myself off, and continue this faith journey?

What is it that assures me that my faith still holds “and grips the solid rock?”

My thirty-four year ministry journey was life-giving, until 2014, the year I endured a drastic life interruption. A serious illness threw me into a year of multiple hospitalizations and several brushes with death. Suddenly, I was plunged into what I can only describe as desert days. The diagnosis?

End-stage renal disease

It sounded awful to me, “end-stage.” Its meaning is simple: the final stage of kidney disease when your kidneys have failed and you cannot survive without dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Those desert days included most of the things I had always dreaded about hospitalization — near-fatal infections, endless blood draws, collapsed veins, mental confusion, physical weakness, long and sleepless nights, and debilitating fear.

In time, I found my way back to my new normal after months of therapy where I struggled to regain the ability to accomplish the simple tasks of daily living. My patient physical therapists trained me to walk again, write again, learn the alphabet, re-learn colors, place blocks in holes, and recite the name of the president of the United States. Way down on the priority list was the slim possibility of moving myself back into ministry. In those days, it was a victory just to be able to sign my name and walk a few steps unaided.

I have now settled into a different life. My days include eight hours of dialysis every day, waiting on an lengthy list for a kidney transplant, working hard in physical therapy, and trying to find myself again. Desert days they are, and at times, I wonder if my faith is still gripping that solid rock.

Like so many ministers, I found my identity in mission and ministry. To be honest, not having a “ministry identity” has left me feeling discarded. My mind tells me that I am more than my ministry, but my heart tells me I am an empty shell.

And then there is what my faith tells me: that I am grateful to be alive, that I am thankful that I feel strong, that God has a purpose for this life interruption, and that ministry really is more than a defined vocation and a specific place of service. Yes, there is an enormously empty place in me, there is.a soul that is longing and a heart that is searching for life beyond this current desert. All the while, reality tells me that my years of ministry are over and that I must learn how to “be” within that reality.

So while I still mourn the loss of my ministry, I am learning how to attend a church service without grieving. I am learning that my writing, blogging and painting is my offering to God. I am learning that I must find contemplative, holy moments to feed my thirsting spirit. I am learning that stillness might be more sacred than activity.

Faith and illness? It is a relentless challenge. There is no doubt about it: illness can be a rude interruptor of life. While I am in the center of that life interruption, watching intently while faith and illness fight a battle for my soul, I have choices.

One choice is burying my emotions and moving unmindfully through each day, without expectations, without dreams, simply going through the motions. My wiser choice is to look squarely into my soul, honestly admitting that these truly are desert days.

To make the wiser choice is to mourn the fact that some of my dreams have died, to own my angst and face off with my losses. This choice does not mean walking around the desert. Rather it means walking directly through it, hoping for manna, for perseverance, for grace.

So as I make my way through this desert, I can say this: it is not easy. It is uncomfortable and frightening. It is a journey that reminds me how fragile hope can be, a journey that tests my faith and my faithfulness. And yet, on this desert journey I have rediscovered that my faith “still holds and grips the solid rock.”

Thanks be to God!